With the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles kicking off their first round playoff series against the St. John's Fog Devils this weekend with Games 1 and 2 Friday and Saturday night from C200, it's high time for a little series preview here at Inside The Nest.
Most everyone around the league has the Eagles as heavy favourites in this series, and it's hard to argue with that general consensus when looking at the two teams on paper and what they've accomplished this season. Cape Breton seems to have the advantage in most of the "traditional" categories; on offense, on defence, in goal, and on special teams. To boot, Cape Breton finished 32 points ahead of the Fog Devils in the final standings. Yes, the Eagles are the heavy favourite in this series, a role the team actually hasn't handled overly well over the course of this season, but you have to play the cards you're dealt.
The Fog Devils have shown Cape Breton this season that they are not a team to take lightly. While they finished fourth-last in the Q this season, they seemed to save some of their best hockey for the Screaming Eagles, and seem to match up better against them than against many other foes around the league. St. John's was actually the only team in the division to manage to beat the Eagles twice on C200 ice this season. On both occasions, goaltender Ilja Ejov stole the show for the Devils, and their forwards were opportunistic enough to make the most of some third period opportunities.
The Foggies are just a second year club and are still in the process of building, but they aren't short on heart or grit, which could take them a long way in a series where they honestly have nothing to lose, another fact that could make them dangerous.
Still, the Eagles have it all over them in terms of depth and talent. Looking at the regular season results between the two teams, Cape Breton vastly outshot St. John's in most contests. Ejov and Co managed to steal a couple of those, but if the Eagles can manage to outshoot and outplay the Fog Devils like they did in the regular season, St. John's will not be able to keep up over the course of a best-of-seven series. They may put up a fight for much of the series, but eventually would succumb. Of course, this is all contingent on Cape Breton playing to their potential; if they don't, the series could be an entirely different story.
All in all, the synopsis of this opening round best-of-seven is that Cape Breton is the heavy favourite, but can't at all take St. John's lightly. Eagle fans need only to look back a few years in team history to find the ultimate example that no team can be taken lightly, no matter how big of an underdog they may be.
Having gotten all of that out of the way, let's take a look at the opponent, the St. John's Fog Devils:
In goal, the Newfoundlanders will be relying on Ejov, who started seven of eight games against the Eagles in the regular season and played extremely well in the vast majority of them. Backup goaltender Pierre-Alexandre Marion is also an option, but I'm guessing that coach Real Paiement will give Ejov the nod. Ilja struggled at times this year, posting a 4.15 GAA and .876 save %, but as stated many times already, he's played some excellent hockey against the Eagles and showed that he's capable of stealing games when he's on.
On the blueline, St. John's is led by two very good offensive defencemen in TJ Brennan and former Eagle Luke Gallant. Both put up a solid 41 points from the blueline, and both are very capable powerplay quarterbacks with great shots from the point. Veteran defenceman Pat O'Keefe is a stay-at-home guy who works extremely hard, and young defender Maxime Dubuc has developed well with increased ice time over the second half. Overall, however, St. John's doesn't really have a true shutdown guy, and gave up 310 goals, second-most in the league.
Up front, St. John's has two pretty good lines.
One includes their top two scorers, Wesley Welcher (21 G 55 A 76 PTS) and Ryan Graham (37 G 37 A 74 PTS). Be sure that these two guys will have an impact on the upcoming series, especially Graham, one of the fiestier players in the league, who has a knack for scoring the big goal. The Eagles' success in this series will have a lot to do with how well they can contain these two guys. I am not entirely sure as to who will start the series as the third man on this unit.
Their second scoring line revolves around sophomore Jean-Simon Allard (12 G 38 A 50 PTS) and Swedish speedster Mario Kempe (23 G 19 A 42 PTS). If most of the attention is on checking Welcher and Graham, these guys can step up and do some damage. This line is completed by Nick Layton, a rookie who surprised with 21 goals this year, including a league-leading six against the Screaming Eagles. Every year, there are one or two surprise playoff producers, and Layton fits the bill as having the potential to be that type of guy.
The Devils' forward corps also has a lot of grit, with Graham and 20-year-old bruisers Nicolas Bachand and Tim Spencer leading the way. Captain Matt Fillier is also an intense and physical player who can also put the puck in the net the odd time. He's a heart and soul kind of guy that I can totally see taking his game to a new level in the playoffs. Even if the Eagles come out on top in this series, there is the potential that they could be a bit banged up, as the Fog Devils are physical and take few prisoners.
The catalyst for this Fog Devil hockey club is coach Real Paiement. Paiement is one of the real veteran coaches of the league, and has a long and successful history behind QMJHL benches. He's a crafty old tactician who knows virtually every trick in the book, and has a particular knack for getting the most out of teams that are a bit short on talent. Screaming Eagles' coach Pascal Vincent will have to be on his toes when up against this wily vet.
The Eagles-Fog Devils series will follow the somewhat rare 2-3-2 playoff format, due to the large distance between the two cities.
This means that the first two games will be at C200 (Fri, Mar 23 and Sat, Mar 24), the next three will be played from Mile One Stadium in St. John's (Tues Mar 27, Wed Mar 28, and Fri Mar 30, the latter only if necessary), and the final two (again if necessary) would be played from C200, on Monday April 2 and Tues April 3.
This format puts a bit of a different twist on the "home ice advantage" aspect of the series, as many would argue that if the home team loses either or both of the first two games, that the lower-seeded team kind of has a bit of an advantage going home for three straight. However, who knows if home ice really means much of anything to either side in this series; the two teams met in the playoffs last year, and the road team won four of the five games. In the regular season this year (not that this has any real bearing on what happens in the playoffs), St. John's managed to win two out of four games at C200, while the Eagles garnered seven out of a possible eight points from Mile One. Does home ice advantage really mean anything? There isn't really any conclusive evidence either way.
The Screaming Eagles are putting on a promotion of sorts for Game One of the series tomorrow night. The first 4000 fans to arrive will receive a free playoff t-shirt, in an attempt to create a bit of a playoff atmosphere at the rink.
Finally, I'd like to throw a question out to you the readers and I'm looking for as much feedback (positive or negative) as possible.
The organization is thinking about the possibility of a fan bus trip happening sometime during these playoffs. For obvious geographical reasons, it couldn't happen during this St. John's series, but if the Eagles were to advance to round 2, they would probably be playing against an opponent that wouldn't be too far of a bus ride away.
Depending on what days of the week the team's away games fall on in such a series, the possibility is there of organizing a bus road trip of fans to cheer the team on in the playoffs in a visiting rink. It would obviously be much more likely to happen for weekend road games than for games during the week, as it would be hard to get too many fans who could make a trip on a weeknight.
I'm bringing this up to try and gauge fan interest in such a road trip, so respond away if you would be interested, and feel free to specify what conditions would best suit your interests (days of the week, going up the night before the game vs. the day of, things like that). Of course, if you want to respond but do not want your feedback publicly published on this blog, just say the word.
Once again, at this point this is still just an idea, but if there is enough SERIOUS interest, and if some road games fall on the right days of the week, it is something that could well become a reality.
After a lengthy training camp, and a tiring 70-game regular season schedule, the real season starts tomorrow night. Our Cape Breton Screaming Eagles have been impressive for most of the year, but now begins the real test; the playoffs. Does this team have what it takes to have success in the postseason? We begin finding out tomorrow night at C200. See you at the rink this weekend!